DESIGNING A DESCRIPTOR BASED SYLLABUS PROPOSAL

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D

ESIGNING A

D

ESCRIPTOR

B

ASED

S

YLLABUS

P

ROPOSAL

Martha Patricia Pérez Acevedo

Universidad Michoacana de San Nicolás de Hidalgo

ABSTRACT

One of the concerns of the current Mexican educational policy is the syllabus design which is an important means of improving education. There is also a high interest in moving towards an international tendency for using descriptors in the curricula. The Department of Languages of the University of Michoacan is also working on a new curriculum proposal considering international and national policies. Therefore this proposal includes the development of language descriptors. This work reflects the result of a project which was aimed to the design of a curriculum for languages framed in those curriclum development principles that lead to a proposal following different stages: a situational analysis, goal formulation and programme building. The product is the curriculum for the Department of languages and the syllabus design to the teaching of English.

INTRODUCTION

The presentation of this work is aimed to share a real-world example of how a language curriculum is developed. It is not any kind of innovation; it just tries to reflect the work of individual teachers charged with the task of developing a syllabus. It is also the purpose of this paper to share the progress of the research that has been carried out in order to have a proposal that can respond to the actual context in which the Department of Languages stands, addressing several elements: the current policy, the social context, the students, the teachers and the conditions of learning a language.

Considering the importance of designing a syllabus and the fact that teachers play a central role in its implementation, it was decided to build a design on the basis of a scientific process; therefore a research project was outlined. Research is a warranty of accountability, and validity of results, it also promotes the generation of knowledge based on a scientific framework which enable us to be better and more professional language teachers and our institutions will therefore acquire a higher status in society by reaching excellence in their services.

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2 The purpose of designing this curriculum is to provide a common guidance in the teaching of languages at the Department in accordance with the educational aims of the university, as well as those of the local and federal authorities. So far, the result of the project is the curriculum for the Department of languages and the development of descriptors for the first semester.

Designing a curriculum is a serious task that leads to some challenges, one of them is to decide on an approach to second language learning curriculum development. Another challenge is to identify the organizational structure. Selecting the correct one implies to consider everybody’s needs and expectations. In this process of identifying the organizational structure, it was forseen that a descriptor based syllabus built around a proportional model curriculum framework would meet students expectations as well as teachers beliefs regarding teaching and learning.

DESCRIPTION OF THE CURRICULUM PROPOSAL

Based on the results of the situational analysis, the revision of different theoretical foundations and institutional documents, the decision is to design a descriptor based curriculum and syllabus for the teaching of languages. The curricular structure establishes objectives, approach, a set of activities are proposed as well as some methodological suggestions, the idea is that they are all linked with the descriptors proposal in order to have a common framework on the content of the course that would be reflected in what students should do with the language. Language skills are integrated and grammar and vocabulary are included too. It was also necessary to establish how tongue is understood and define a concept on this. The way we understand what tongue is will lead our teaching and learning processes. Highly important has been to include a brief discussion on needs analysis. Some recommendations on pedagogical aspects are also considered and a brief description on the way the Department carries out the administrative organization. As for evaluation, the existing criteria at the Department is still the one to be used.

The development of descriptors are intended to serve as a framework for the syllabus itself and the instruction in the teaching of languages at the Department, and content in classes. They are informative for teachers but do not pretend to cover the variety and range of functions, situations, topics, vocabulary and grammar structures. These aspects need to be worked through the teaching material in use at the Department or through any other material teachers may implement. Teachers have the flexibility to adapt the proposed descriptors to their specific lesson

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3 plans and teaching classes, as far as they attain them as well as the assessing criteria in their exams within the corresponding level of language proficiency.

DEVELOPING DESCRIPTORS

Descriptors are approached as statements that define the content of each language programme. They are provided for the four skills and also intended for linguistic, pragmatic and sociolinguistic aspects. One of the recommendations is that they should be integrated in the class time, they are given in lists, but it is just as a reference for the teacher who should use them as a guide and use the methodology that best integrates them in activities or tasks for students.

Descriptors stated in the Common European Framework are very broad and they describe behaviours of learners in English as well as in some other languages. As it is suggested in the document, we have used them as a reference to inform planning for this proposal, although not really as descriptors for evaluating language but as descriptors for syllabus content. From these descriptors, teachers can develop their lesson plans and adapt the available material. We have linked them to other criteria (students assessment criteria, principles for writing, for example). In this way we make clearer the expected language learning students need to have in their use of the target language.

In order to create descriptors we have used the methodology proposed in the Common European Framework document: intuitive methods, which require the principled interpretation of experience.

METHOD 1

Expert: Each of the teachers in charge of this design has written a set of descriptors which implied the study of teaching and learning theoretical principles, our day to day classes, and our experience as English teachers. It also required revising, studying and analysing different banks of descriptors already outlined and create our own. Some Department documents have been also consulted: students’ oral assessment criteria, principles for writing, textbooks, the background of the Common European Framework (Waystage, Vantage, and Threshold Level).

METHOD 2

Committee: This is an adaptation of the one proposed by the Common European Framework. Once the three teachers of the team have produced a set of descriptors, they were commented on, analysed and improved. There were no external consultants it was just on the basis of our experience, and the comparison to students’ performance.

The suggested guidelines for developing descriptors were also considered: positiveness, definiteness, clarity, brevity and independence. The descriptors proposed follow a positive formulation, they describe concrete performances of the language lerners, they try to be clear

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4 enough so they can be understood easily, they are also short in length and finally, it has been a goal that they can be integrated as a whole to reach an objective or a set of objectives.

While working on the development of descriptors as content we got puzzled, because what the difference between a descriptor and an objective or a function, or a task or even an activity could be, they may look very alike sometimes. Could the difference be found in how they are written, or in how they could be used in the everyday class or in personal assumptions?

It is worthy if we have a closer look at them. Descriptors describe what learners can do with the language, and although they are used as assessment criteria, we consider that they can also be used as content, since they can be that specific in order to specify what learners do with the language. There could be little difference between a descriptor, an objective, a function and a task. If we start by asking the simple question of what (what should the language learner is able to do with language?) question that is used for formulating tasks (Bygate, Skehan and Swain 2001).

Let us point out the term able to, which is also used for formulating objectives, and the can do descriptors from the Common European Framework. In order to produce tasks (and tasks are activities), objectives and descriptors the same words are used: able to or can do, so we can conclude that objectives can turn into tasks, they can also turn into descriptors, and vice versa. Moreover, what students can do with the language or are able to do with the language is what people do by means of the language, and that is a function (Waystage). All terms are closely related. Even in the field of general education they can easily be used with no particular difference from one another. The development of skills by means of tasks and activities generates behaviours and these behaviours are described in statements which are the descriptors. The descriptors are understood as these statements that define the communicative competence regarding the linguistic knowledge and the use of language.

SAMPLE SYLLABUS RESULT

For the purpose of this paper, only the first semester (English consists of nine semesters) for the teaching of English is presented.

ENGLISH SYLLABUS PURPOSES

To develop communicative competence in every proficiency level.

To develop the necessary skills for communicating in oral and written form.

To know cultural aspects of the countries where English is their mother tongue in order to have a better understanding of them.

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5 The following table shows how the content was distributed and organized for the first semester of English regarding listening. It is written in Spanish since it has been taken from the original document.

FIRST SEMESTER CONTENT HABILIDAD

ESCUCHAR

META OBJETIVO DESCRIPTOR

Entender el lenguaje hablado como parte del proceso de comunicación.

Desarrollar la habilidad para escuchar entendiendo el lenguaje hablado.

Entender la pronunciación del idioma

Entender lo que se dice en una conversación de nivel básico

Reconocer frases y expresiones

Entender a sus compañeros siempre y cuando estos tengan una pronunciación adecuada

Identificar roles de acuerdo a lo que cada quien habla

Identificar los sonidos de las palabras y su ritmo al ser dichas, así como diferentes entonaciones

Discriminar sonidos de acuerdo a su acentuación (stress) y pronunciación

Identificar la entonación de la persona que habla Comprender diferentes entonaciones, cuando se trata de una pregunta, respuesta, exclamación, orden, invitación, entre otros.

Seguir una conversación, diálogo o monólogo, entendiendo lo que se dice

Enfocar su atención de manera global a lo que se conversa para entender la idea de lo que se dice Evitar distraerse tratando de entender cada palabra que se usa en lo que escucha.

Discriminar información de lo que escucha en grabaciones

Entender lo que el maestro y sus compañeros hablan así como lo que escucha en grabaciones

Utilizar estrategias de comunicación que le permitan volver a escuchar cuando no ha entendido algo por ejemplo que le repitan o que le aclaren lo dicho. Enfocar esta habilidad para

escuchar como parte fundamental del desarrollo de otras habilidades y componentes en el aprendizaje del idioma.

Transferir lo que escucha al realizar acciones que correspondan, por ejemplo contestar lo que se le pregunta, ejecutar una orden que se le dé, escribir un dictado.

Entender cuando alguien está leyendo en voz alta Reconocer en el discurso hablado el uso de estructuras gramaticales básicas: presente y pasado simple, así como en presente progresivo, haciendo uso de pronombres personales y posesivos; adjetivos posesivos y preposiciones de lugar.

Identificar en el discurso hablado el vocabulario básico relacionado a datos personales, parentesco familiar, habitaciones y objetos de casa, ropa, comida, colores, clima, números, fechas, actividades de esparcimiento y deportivas, empleos.

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CONCLUSION

The syllabus is still undergoing some refinements to strengthen the development of descriptors and help teachers and students to have a unified basis that lead everybody to clear outcomes. Although this syllabus defines several aspects like a concept on tongue, skills, methodology and activities, courses can be taught differently, since teachers are free to add their own interpretations and assumptions. Two main broad aspects may prevent the syllabus from success: the over use of textbooks and an authority oriented approach from teachers. They tend to use a teacher centred approach mainly, different activities are under teacher’s control, as well as the management of the classroom. Textbooks have been almost the only teaching material besides being the actual syllabus, on the other hand, students like to have one so they can have this sense of doing something and have the feeling that they are progressing, they like to do all the pages in the textbook, otherwise teachers can be negatively judged.

Designing the curriculum has been an endless task and it is indeed because of the several stages that require systematic and thorough work, which implies to follow a cycle: once the curriculum is designed, the next step is implementation, then evaluation and then back to more research and design in order to make the necessary changes and improvements.

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